The courage to love

“God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” ~ Hazrat Inayat Khan


“My heart is sore.”love notes from the universe

A good friend spoke those words many decades ago about the horrific flooding situation in Venezuela. She had lived and worked in that country as a missionary for almost 30 years. She knew the people. Their hunger. Their thirst. Their poverty.

Now, to see so many dead, so many lost, devastated her. So when I asked her that day how she was, she answered, “My heart is sore.”

Her choice of words still rattles around in my brain. They have brailled themselves on my spirit and I have found myself asking: “How often do I allow my heart to be sore?”

For me, my heart continues to be sore as I watch my father decline, a man who once communicated from his soul, helping others, now unable to speak coherently. For others, that heart-tenderness may be an illness, or a death, job loss — some life crisis — that will present a choice, either to harden their hearts or to allow them to be sore and cracked open.

At first, we many defend and protect our fragile hearts. Shut them down. To allow our hearts to feel to the depth of “soreness” means that we have to be vulnerable. And that openness can be downright frightening. And for a time, perhaps we need to honor the walls around our wounded hearts.

But eventually, if we are willing, we can allow our hearts to crack open. To grow into our authentic selves, we must give our hearts the space to feel the depth of genuine and mature love.

And along the way, we will discover this harsh truth: Love will demand much of us. Loving is difficult. Just as author and psychologist Scott Peck wrote in  his spiritual classic The Road Less Traveled that life is hard, I believe, too, that loving is hard.

Genuine love demands sacrifice and often challenges us to move beyond our comfort zones. And this can hurt. It can make our hearts sore. And who wants to do that?

Thankfully, if we are blessed, we have been graced with some wonderful teachers and way-showers on our journey toward love. They have loved us in small and yet unconditional ways so that we might shine. In other words, they have stepped back into the shadows by virtue of their love and self-forgetting so that we might step forward into our own brilliance.

In my own life, there have been many — my father, mother, good and gentle friends. All have encouraged and supported me. At times when I have lost hope, didn’t think I could go another step, was not loving myself, they were standing at my side, encouraging me, “You can do it.” Or they have consoled, “Everything will be OK. I know it.”

heart you are hereBut even beyond words, they have backed up their love with actions. And therein, I believe, is the heart of love.

I remember my father heading off to work before daylight so there would be food and shelter for our family. I recall the times we took vacations and day trips when he could have used that time to rest. I can still see my mother cooking breakfast and packing lunches and plowing through endless mounds of wash.

I bring to mind a high school English teacher who taught us more about life than literature. Instead of discussing “The Scarlet Letter” one day she scribbled in chalk on the blackboard: “What is love?” and then asked us to share our thoughts. And I recall a dear friend who had enough love to challenge me to see my failings when I couldn’t see them.

In hindsight, this type of love implies one thing — movement away from self and toward the other. This is the self-forgetting of love that is so difficult. Many parents know this kind of love. So do those who are challenged into caring for an aging parent, relative or partner.

When this type of love is extended, we truly are like God, like the Divine who loves us all. Love is, at its heart, spiritual. And radical. I think Scott Peck defines love best:

“Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth … love is an act of will, namely both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”

When we choose to love, our hearts indeed become sore. But just as soreness fades after exercising, renewing the fatigued muscles and making them stronger, so, too, do our hearts become stronger each time we are loving. Each time our hearts are cracked open in love, they grow and expand to a depth that enriches us and others — beyond all measure.

But it takes courage. And only we can make that choice.






The zen of caregiving

November is National Family Caregivers Month …

… and before this month ends, I’d like to share a prize-winning essay about my caregiving experience with my father. Many of you have read this. For those who haven’t, I hope my words offer hope and inspiration.

Most important, during this month of honoring those who care for loved ones and this season of thanksgiving, I bow to all caregivers in gratitude — whoever you are, wherever you are. We are indeed noble.


Antonio_Zuninga_400pDad is trying to tell me a story. Before the stroke, he was an amazing storyteller. Not just to family, but to thousands of people around the world. Stories of faith, hope and love. Inspirational stories that healed others. Miracles happened. Many.

Now, he is in need of healing. He needs a miracle. I see none. For him, for myself.

Dad can speak, but his words are often misplaced, his cognition scattered, like puzzle pieces trying to connect and take shape. He gropes to find meaning in some dark, recessed cavern of his brain.

“I am holding the door open,” he begins, as we sit on the deck. He pauses, struggling to finish. “And there was a miracle.”

Dad repeats these words in an endless loop for almost a half hour as I watch a robin flit in and out of the leafy trellis where it has built a nest. I sit with dad most days. He can’t fall. Nor can he do many things he once did, he, who was his high school’s valedictorian, he, who once worked in broadcasting and met movie stars and celebrities.

I interrupt. “What miracle, dad?”

He smiles, “Wait. I’m getting to that.” And the loop begins again.

Inside I am crying. I have been weeping since the stroke on Good Friday. It was not good. It feels like a cruel joke that God would nail dad to the cross of non-communication on that particular day, dad, who valued speech above all else.

How could God do this to dad who gave countless lectures in churches, schools, veterans’ hospitals and more, not only in the United States, but around the world? Dad, who told others, “You were born for greatness, why settle for less?” Dad, who told others about God’s healing love? Dad, who helped so many people.

I am angry. At God. At life. I miss my father.

Dad is quiet now, looking off into the blue, cloudless sky. His gaze goes toward the backyard and the flowering bushes. Where is he? The tears and fears well up within me again and I wrestle to find acceptance and peace.

robin-building-nest-carol_matthai-389639-nwpc-225x300I disrupt dad’s reverie and tell him about the robin. He cranes his neck to look and smiles. The robin is nesting, waiting for birth. I am, too. I feel only emptiness.

My cell phone rings. More doctors. More appointments. I am always on the phone these days with someone about dad. I am thrust into learning about INR levels and navigating the maze of the medical system. I have lost my life. Is this healthy? I know it’s not and not only do I battle with acceptance, but also balance.

I catch dad staring at me and he breaks his silence.

“I have an answer to your solution,” he says.

I smile at his choice of words. Despite his stroke, he recognizes “something” is not right with me these days. The irony is, dad doesn’t realize he is the reason I am so stressed. The part of his brain that flooded with blood doesn’t understand my exhaustion. His care is more than I imagined. And I worry about my mother, who provides the majority of care. And my brother. I am the relief. It never feels enough.

letting go open hand“You have to hand everything over to Raymond,” he says.

It takes me a second to understand. But I do. Before the stroke, dad would tell me to place everything in the hands of God. To let go. To trust. He used to tell me that God was in charge and I needed to let God take control.

“Raymond will help you,” he says, “and take care of things.”

The truth is, I have been talking to Raymond forever. Praying to find wisdom, direction. Asking for graces and strength. Feeling little in turn.

Dad says he wants to go inside. I help him out of the chair into his walker and he shuffles through the back door. I knew some day all this would happen. I just didn’t think it would be so soon, or so hard.

He is in his recliner now, watching a TV channel filled with old programs. I feel trapped in the black-and-white world of dad’s stroke and the selfish part of me wants to run as far away and as fast as I can. But I can’t. I love my father. But there they are, the confused stew of emotions – duty, guilt, responsibility and yes, love – that trap me, beckon me, invite me. Perhaps save me.

Friends tell me I need to take care of myself. But how? I pick up a newspaper and am led to an article about a mindfulness meditation course. I have always been interested, but location and cost were always prohibitive. But here, I read, the program is being held down the street and in the evenings, by the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine in Philadelphia.

I call and learn scholarships are available. I apply and wait to learn if I’m accepted. I hand it over to Raymond. If I’m meant to attend, God will arrange it. Raymond does come through for me and I begin an 8-week course on mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) where I learn to focus on my breathing, to be in the present moment. I learn to sit. To stay with whatever is happening, without judging it.

BCALM-mindfulness-meditation-meditating-hands-sliderIt is the miracle I needed and I learn to navigate the stresses of caregiving with greater ease and presence. In the past, I wanted to prepare for illness or death of a loved one. But now I know that it’s not possible. It was the control part of me that wanted to be ready, to have things in place in the hope that I might handle it better. But all that is nonsense. We can only experience the sorrow when it comes, in the moment.

And although dad will not have a cure, his miracle, in some ironic way, is his stroke. He always loved helping others. Now, he has been helping me. All this time, he has been teaching me the zen of caregiving and how the two are so similar – sitting, being in the moment, patience, letting go, accepting, and staying with “what is.” Dad’s stroke has been his one last great gift to me.

The next day, we are on the deck again. Dad begins his story again, but never finishes. He never does these days. But I am more at peace with this.

“I love you,” he says, surprising me. His words pierce my heart.

“I love you, too,” I say, walking over and leaning down to hug him.

letting_go_by_bandico-d5s1eyh“Remember to trust in Raymond,” he reminds me.

I hug him again, the robin snagging the corner of my vision. She is still nesting, still waiting. She can do nothing but be in the moment until new life is transformed and shaped, until some hope flits off into the sky with birthed wings.

I sit again. I stay with the moment. With dad. And with Raymond.

(Earlier this year, among more than a thousand entries, this essay “The Zen of Caregiving” tied for second place in the annual caregiving story contest sponsored by the John A. Hartford Foundation. The contest rules specified we write about what helps us in our caregiving journey.



There’s no place like home

I love The Wizard of Oz. Some people hate it. But for me the story is a spiritual journey. One that speaks of our innate yearning to find home. Our true home.


When I was a toddler I used to clop around the house wearing my mother’s 1950s bright red open-toed high heel shoes. I’d fall and stand back up, wander into the bedroom and catch a glimpse of myself in the oval mirror.

I had the feeling I could do anything in those shoes. They were my power.

But somewhere along the “yellow brick road” to adulthood, I began to lose that power. School, social structures, life dorothy red slippersitself — all chipped away at the core of my being.

And I lost my way home. To my true self.

This journey to find out way home is one I believe that we all share. It’s a yearning and a profound longing in each of us whether we recognize it or not.

And like Dorothy, we begin in a black-and-white world. We find ourselves lost with few soul maps to guide us. We are easily distracted — duties, responsibilities, professional success, status, addictions — all lead us away from finding our way home to our true selves.

Then “something” happens. It may be “something” internal — a restlessness, a feeling that we need to move on, or that we are missing life. Or, more often than not, it is “something” external — a divorce, an illness, a death, a job loss, a child in trouble.

When that tornado flings us into the air, it turns our world upside down.

For me, my whirlwind was and still is my father’s stroke. As a primary caregiver, my life was forever changed on many levels.

tornadoThis crisis is usually an invitation, although it doesn’t feel it at the time. It summons us to choice — to undergo transformation or to cling to old ways of being.

Dorothy had the courage to take the journey toward metamorphosis and along the way to meet those discarded parts of herself: the scarecrow who needed to learn to think for himself; the tin man, who needed to get in touch with his heart and his feelings; and the lion, who needed to find courage.

Dorothy had forgotten that she always had these qualities. By taking the journey along the yellow brick road, however, she rediscovered those powerful parts of herself she had disowned, despite her “false self” — the wicked witch — that kept harassing her into believing she had no power at all.

So what are we to do when the tornadoes of life hit us full force? I believe that hope rests in braving the tumult and waiting with trust in the Divine who loves us — however you perceive that being or energy. The book by L. Frank Baum describes Dorothy’s reaction this way:

“It was very dark, and the wind howled terribly around her … hour after hour passed away and slowly Dorothy got over her fright. At first she had wondered if she would be dashed to pieces when the house fell again; but as the hours passed … she stopped worrying and resolved to wait calmly and see what the future would bring.”

When we can wait and trust calmly, we are often delivered to a brilliant new world that has been changed into vibrant colors, a more authentic, expanded version of ourselves.

But it takes courage to take the journey over the rainbow. It is easy to become frightened by flying monkeys and to place our beliefs in false wizards outside of ourselves.

We forget — as I did when I was a toddler — that those red shoes are our passion, our delight. Even if we falter and fall, we must get up again and again, and stay tight inside those ruby slippers as we traverse the yellow brick road home to ourselves, to our true being, no matter the tumult around us.

glinda good witchWe need to remember as Glinda the Good Witch said that we’ve had the power all along.

And when we trust in the Divine power within us and wait with hope, we eventually find that the spiral of the journey has led to the center of our true selves. We find ourselves home, arriving where we started — as Dorothy did — but transformed.

As to my own journey, I am still somewhere in process. I am still walking in those red shoes, learning with each new tornado in my life to wait and see what the future might bring.

It’s taking trust. And patience.

But the rewards will be worth it. Because I truly believe, as Dorothy said, there’s no place like home.


The holy dark

woman wearyI have never been good at waiting. But that’s all I’ve been doing the last few weeks. Waiting in long lines at airports. Waiting in numbing car rides to reach destinations. And yesterday, waiting with my mother at the ophthalmologist office for her eye procedure.

The waiting has been, and continues to be, a great spiritual teacher for me. My ego self, or small self, has always wanted to press forward, to get things done.

But sitting there — as my mother and others waited for eye drops to be administered, as their vision became blurry and as they waited for it to clear — I came to “see” that I, too, was waiting. And in some kind of darkness.

Yes, I meditate. But even that, in some strange way, had become another “doing” for me. Somehow, my authentic self had been lost in the crisis and chaos of the last two-and-a-half years after dad had his stroke.

Somehow, I had been caught up in the necessary practicality of getting things done, of making sure doctors’ appointments were scheduled, that a myriad of duties were performed to meet dad’s care, and now, my mother’s.

For me, that “waiting room” in the doctor’s office became exactly that — a space of waiting and a moment of unraveling and insights. I came to understand how far apart duty and love are, how somewhere between the two — between Martha in service and Mary in love sitting at the feet of Jesus — I had lost my balance. And that waiting revealed the shocking depth of my spiritual and physical fatigue.

And it could not make itself known until I had stopped. Truly stopped. And was ready.

Jungian analyst James Hillman says that our “soul is the patient part of us.” My soul had been crying out to me for some time and I had not been listening. I had felt a deep stirring that “something” was yearning to be birthed in me, something born of the pain and anguish of the last few years. But like many of the patients in the doctor’s office, I saw nothing. Only blurred vision. And darkness.

Despite my belief in the Divine or a Higher Power, the last month or so that holy presence had felt totally absent in my life. But of this process, monk and author Thomas Merton writes:

darkness-to-light1“This is where so many holy people break down … as soon as they reach the point where they can no longer see the way and guide themselves by their own light, they refuse to go any further … it is in this darkness that we find true liberty. It is in this abandonment that we are made strong. This is the night that empties us.”

I had felt the beginnings of emptiness. And the pangs of readiness. Ready to let go and truly wait on the Divine to work within me, to do whatever was needed in my life. I had written so many times of letting go, but I knew this time it had to be more than just words. “The fruit of letting go is birth,” wrote mystic and theologian Meister Eckhart.

But could I truly let go? And would there even be birth? As this dark night descended on me, it felt like a deep purging. It still feels that way. I am in the midst of it even now. It is authentic. Real. Painful. And I want it to go away. This darkness, however, is part of my spiritual journey and I believe our collective journey if we have the courage to risk it — and to wait. And as I said in my first sentence, I have never been good at waiting.

In this darkness, it’s often easy to lose hope. I have. Many times, but especially the last few weeks when the Divine’s love has felt absent. I still have no answers, still don’t know what’s ahead for me. And right now, I tremble with the thought of who this new creation might be. Or will she even be there at all? But I am called to remember the words by author Sue Monk Kidd:

“Too many of us panic in the dark. We don’t understand that it’s a holy dark and that the idea is to surrender to it and journey through to real light.”

As mom and I sat there in the waiting room, mom’s vision finally cleared from the eye drops. My heart-and-soul eyes, however, were still in the shadows. They still are. I still sit with the “unresolved” within me. But I can only hope this darkness is another peeling away of all that is not authentic. I can pray that I am shedding yet another layer of the bigstock-Woman-Silhouette-Waiting-For-S-5824100many counterfeit selves I have created over a lifetime. And as painful as this all is, I am asking — not without trepidation — to surrender to the darkness of the present moment in the hope it will reveal the light and treasure of my true being.

But I can only wait. And see.